Basil Spence: Buildings and projects
Louise Campbell, Miles Glendinning, and Jane
RIBA Publishing £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50
(Use code CT524)
THIS is massive tome, running to 19 chapters, and chock-full of
superb illustrations, arising out of an Arts and Humanities
Research Council project led by Louise Campbell of the University
of Warwick and her two scholarly collaborators, who contribute
substantially to the book.
One interesting thing about Sir Basil Spence (1907-76) - quite
apart from his crowning glory, the new Coventry Cathedral,
characterised here as "the single biggest ikon of post-war
reconstruction" in Britain - is, the book indicates, the ways in
which his career spans several distinct eras and trends.
Of these, the most significant was the keen interest that he
showed, during its 1930s heyday, in the Modernist German-based
Bauhaus movement, led by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe,
whose work he visited (soon after his honeymoon), and from which he
de- rived much of the ethic of social responsibility which informed
his work in post-war Britain, including his contributions to the
1946 "Britain Can Make It" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert
Museum, and the 1951 Festival of Britain, at which Spence was a
He didn't build only ecclesiastical marvels: Scottish country
houses, including quite self-indulgent castellated wonders built
from scratch, entered his remit, as work flourished after the war.
He built, and helped revolutionise, army barracks and parliamentary
buildings. By 1929, he was assisting Sir Edwin Lutyens, and some of
the latter's versatility and good judgement washed off on the
younger man. Spence's superb draughtsmanship extended to painting:
some rewarding self-portraits are included here, and his youthful
sketches - of Pugin's work, for instance - already look
Every facet of his work is explored in invigorating detail here,
in a style that is as accessible as it is academic. This applies to
all of the contributors; and the balance is about right, too: the
early years get 40 pages, the 1950s 80, the '60s 100, and the '70s
- up to Spence's death, aged only 69 - a further 30 pages.
The index is thorough, and nicely presented in four columns.
Coventry gets a closely argued 32-page chapter from Louise Campbell
herself; the illustrations of various stages in the process stand
testimony to the complexity, and the triumph, of the proposed,
emerging, and finished project, the result of a wildly contested
architectural competition announced in 1951.
You don't get a better imprimatur than that of the Royal
Institute of British Architects, who have supported the project so
much as to publish the book. In a spectac-ular large format, it is,
surely, one of the landmark books on British architecture of the
past half-century. Recommending it very highly is a pleasure and a